you're looking for Ray Charles on an evening where he plays two
55 minute shows, you can probably find him in one of two places:
seated in front of a piano or chessboard, In fact, the trim, 5'9"
legendary "Genius of Soul" feels at home in front of
either board, regardless of how many people are watching. Most
people can picture Ray with his black sunglasses and captivating
smile sitting in front of a piano, yet the image of this blind
musician looking with his hands at a chess board may raise a few
questions. Like, how?
In a game
where skill and determination weed out the more proficient players,
chess can be easily adapted to the needs of the visually impaired.
For instance, Ray plays on a board where each square is the same
color but the depth of the squares are altered-- the "black"
squares are raised while the "white" squares are lowered.
In addition, the black pieces may have sharper tops, whereas the
white ones are flat, and all pieces include a peg on the bottom
that fit into any hole drilled into the squares on the board.
In order to make the game a bit more user-friendly, you will probably
hear Ray Charles and his partner calling out moves as the game
progresses, making this type of chess a louder, more interactive
Ray has managed
to recruit a few of his band members, friends, and even interviewers
to play a chess game in between gigs on tour. As he sips warm
coffee with Bols gin, he is comfortably removed from long months
on the road promoting his latest album.
as he is affectionately called, has certainly put his time in
on the road. In his musical career of over 47 years, Ray has successfully
mastered the blues, jazz, gospel, rock, pop, and country music
continually airing his soulful heart. He has teamed up with the
best of the best in each stylistic genre, including BB King, Aretha
Franklin, Lou Rawls, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder,
and, most recently, Eric Clapton. Ray prefers not to describe
himself as a specific kind of singer, just a musician. "I'm
not a country singer. I'm a singer who sings country songs. I'm
not a blues singer, but I can sing the blues. I'm not really a
crooner, but I can sing love songs. I'm not a specialist, but
I'm a pretty good utility man. I can play first base, second base,
shortstop. I can catch and maybe even pitch a little."
be the blues king or the granddaddy of soul, you get the distinct
feeling that Ray is singing what he knows. "His style of
singing is born out of his style of talking," explains David
Ritz, coauthor of Ray's autobiography, Brother Ray. "There
are two moods which he exibits: extreme highs and extreme lows...When
he is excited, he is an obsessive and poetic talker; he will chew
your ear off until you are exhausted and beat. When he is down,
he becomes non-verbal-- his responses are monosyllabic...Both
moods are strong, and his sullen look will grip him as suddenly
as his smile." But his wry sense of humor is enduring-- and
endearing. Once, when booked into a glamorous Las Vegas hotel
suite with a bed two steps up, he said: "You know, I think
these people are trying to kill me." On the ceiling, above
the bed, was a mirror. "Oh great!" he shot back when
informed of the extra.
Robinsons' autobiography, Brother Ray, details Ray's life, which
began on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia. He recounts his
days as a country boy in Greenville, Florida (about 30 miles from
the Georgia boarder) as the older of two boys cared for by his
biological mother, ŒRetha, whom he called "Mama."
ŒRetha and the boys treated one of his father's first wives,
Mary Jane, like family, and Ray was known to refer to her as "Mother."
Mary Jane lived nearby and occasionally cared for the boys as
if they were her own. His father, Bailey Robinson, was rarely
seen by Ray or his brother George. Bailey worked driving spikes
on the railroad crossities in Florida and Georgia, hardly ever
coming around to see the family. It was ŒRetha who brought
home whatever pennies she could, doing chores for the local people
in the neighborhood.
highly of his mama. To this day, he can clearly describe her looks
and continues to praise her wisdom, love, and discipline. His
experiences as a child were of complete love and acceptance, mixed
with periods of loss and suffering. Early childhood memories include
adventures in the colorful country with his brother George, and
Sundays at the local Baptist Church-- Ray's first introduction
to religion and music. And then he'll recall watching his four-year-old
brother George accidentally drown in a washtub as he desperately
tried to pull him out. Ray was only five then, and the most he
could manage to do was scream for his mama to help.
Up until he
was about six, Ray's vision was normal. Over a period of time,
images began to blur and he would spend five or ten minutes each
morning wiping the mucas from his eyes as they adjusted to the
light. During that year, ŒRetha has taken him to numerous
doctors in the area, all of which concluded that Ray would be
blind and there was nothing to be done about it. By the age of
seven, with his mama's insistence, he reluctantly left home for
a state-supported boarding school-- the nearest one being St.
Augustine's for the blind and deaf, 160 miles away from home.
was a country woman with a whole lot of common sense. She understood
what most of our neighbor's didn't-- that I shouldn't grow dependent
on anyone except myself," Ray explains. "ŒOne of
these days, I ain't gonna be here,' she kept hammering inside
my head. Meanwhile, she had me scrub floors, chop wood, wash clothes,
and play outside like all the other kids...And her discipline
didn't stop just Œcause I was blind. She wasn't about to
let me get away with any foolishness."
school separated the deaf from the blind, the black from the white,
and the boys from the girls from ages six through eighteen. "It's
awfully strange thinking about separating small children-- black
from white-- when most of Œem can't even make out the difference
between the two colors," Ray said.
It was a tough
move for him to be so far from home at the time and he openly
admits his crying. "I suppose I've always done my share of
crying, especially when there's no other way to contain my feelings.
I know that men ain't supposed to cry, but I think that's wrong.
Crying's always been a way for me to get things out which are
buried deep, deep down. When I sing, I often cry. Crying is feeling
and feeling is being human. Oh yes, I cry."
Braille and eventually sign language so the deaf kids could "speak"
to him in the palms of his hands as he read their lips. It wasn't
long before he was able to read books and work with his hands
weaving and carving. The second part of the school year, Ray was
taken to the hospital to have his right eye removed. It had been
aching him badly, throbbing from morning to night. To this day,
doctors can only speculate as to what the problem was, some saying
was always into music, whether it was pounding on Mr. Wylie Pittman's
piano in the neighborhood store or simply listening to the jukebox.
It was no surprise that his favorite subject in school was music
instruction, which he started at the age of eight. The formal
instruction began with exercises and classical pieces on the piano
and, two years later, on the clarinet.
attracted, and distracted, by music of all sorts, Ray discovered
a variety of role models and musical styles. His keen sense of
hearing and rhythm enabled him to pick up not only the instruments
and melodies, but the arrangements how the horns, the reeds,
and the rhythm were arranged in different sections. During the
early forties, Ray was listening to the big bands with the rest
of America, along with the middy Mississippi blues that were only
avaiable on "race records." Determined and strong-willed,
Ray would always find some way to sneak into the practice rooms
at school after hours to practce.
mama warned him over and over again that one day, she wouldn't
be around, but nothing prepared Ray for the time when she passed
away. He was only fifteen when he had to return home from school
for his mother's funeral.
a boy has just one parent a mama he'll cling to her
like she's life itself," expresses Charles in Brother Ray.
"And he'll never even start thinking about what life would
be like without her. The thought's too terrible...I was unable
to deal with the facts of death; I was unable to accept the reality
brother George had died, there was just mama. Now he was alone.
"I had to make up my own mind, my own way, in my own time,"
explained Ray. "Never really had to do that before, and in
many ways, I found the situation frightening. But that week of
silence and suffering also made me harder, and that hardness has
stayed with me the rest of my life."
Ray dropped out of high school and moved to Jacksonville, Florida.
His intention in scuffling through Jacksonville was to get some
live musical experience in the big city. Ray responded to his
new surroundings by seeking out any piano he could find. "it
was music which drove me; it was my greatest pleasure and my greatest
release. It was how I expressed myself."
It was about
this time Ray Charles Robinson ended up shortening his name, so
he wouldn't be confused with "Sugar Ray" Robinson, the
popular boxer of the time. Staying downtown with some friends
of Mary Jane, Ray would jam at any gig he could get. He would
manage to memorize his way around town, paying little attention
to things like drainage pipes, sewers, or cracks in the sidewalk.
Ray was always
pretty courageous. When he was ten or eleven, he rode a bicycle
on practucally every dirt road and path in Greenville. During
a summer in Tallahassee, the fifteeen-year-old daredevil learned
how to ride a motorcycle. He loved the feeling of motion and just
like getting around Jacksonvile or any other town, "being
blind wasn't gonna stop me...somewhere in the back of my mind,
I knew I wasn't going to hurt myselfI always had a lot of
faith in my ability not to break my neck." Ray's hearing
is exceptional, and his instincts are sharp. "I suppose that
one proof of the rightness of my attitude is that as a kid, I
was never seriously hurt and there were only a few close calls,"
hearing proved to be quite an asset to his career as well. Though
the ability to sing, play, write music and network his way around
the clubs barely put food on the table at first, nothing could
contain Ray's passion for music. After Jacksonville, it was Orlando,
then Seattle, and by 1948, his first album was released. At the
time, Ray Charles was most influenced by his idols, Nat Cole and
Charles Brown. Ray recalls, "But as I was shaving one morning,
I thought, ŒWho knows your name?'" Gradually, his own
long before Ray Charles was forging the gospel with the blues.
His earliest tangible result of that was "I Got a Woman"
for Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records in 1954. Record producer
Jerry Wexler described Brother Ray's voice then: "The emerging
sound was unmistakable, brand-new, yet ancient as the woods, the
country church of Ray's childhood. The breakthrough was close
And so began
the "Genius of Soul," a hybrid sound that introduces
God's voice to man's feelings, which certainly raised a few eyebrows
for a while. Ray continued to experiment with his new style. Big
bands, small bands, solo, and a variety of backup choruses have
spotted his long career. He has also been fortunate enough to
work without interference from record companies through the years
and be able to choose his own songs.
very into lyrics," Ray explains. "I start with what
the words are saying, what the storyline is saying, like a good
script. It should really capture me, do something for me. If I
don't get it, it's not going to move people, and if it's not going
to move people, it's not going to happen. I don't think I'm good
because I'm blind, I think I'm good because I'm good."
At one point,
stage manager Carl Hunter explained that "he'd [Charles]
know it if the band missed a note, a single note. He'd know it
if the drummer's left shoelace was flapping. You be with us long
enough, you'll swear the man can see." In a performance,
Ray's body moves to a different part of the music, but his feet
provide the most deft, airbone accompaniment. It's his feet that
give the backbeat, the downbeat, the accents, and the tempo; it's
the way Ray conducts. In fact, this way of conducting is so powerful
that "in rehearsal, if you walk between the band and his
feet, they all start cursing you," said Carl.
Bob Abrams, says, "You know you're getting a good show when
Ray's socks fall down...his feet are going up over the piano.
One sock falls half-mast. It's because of all the energy he expands.
That's his exercise."
latest album/CD, "My World," is yet another example
of his timeless musical talent. His mix of socially conscious
songs with pop standards display a very contemporary side of Ray.
There are songs about concern for families and children, as well
as peace and unity on the planet.
is powerful," Ray says. "As people listen to it, they
can be affected. They respond. But when I was doing this album,
I wasn't trying to create an overall message. It just turned out
that we got some songs that had something to say." And Ray,
along with his all-star cast for some of his songs (like Billy
Preston, Mavis Staples, and Eric Clapton), continues his musical
experiments this time using synthesizers, sound samplers,
and drum machines.
attitude keeps Ray current with his fans. During the 1980's and
90's, he caught the attention of a whole new generation with his
popular "California Raisin" and Pepsi ("Uh huh")
commercials. In fact, the first Diet Pepsi commercial in the fall
of 1990 proved to be so unexpectedly popular that Ray Charles
is taking home an estimated $3 million from Pepsi after renegotiating
his original one-year contract. And for those that missed it,
photo "opportunities" were available with life-size
cutout figures of Ray Charles and the Raeletts at selected supermarkets
say, I'm proud of that commercial," explains Ray, in his
fifth year as spokesperson for Pepsi.
And what about
those three sexy background singers dubbed the Reaeletts? Well,
Ray has never been one to hold back with women. Next to music,
women have always been the major objects of his attention. In
Brother Ray, he tells us that no day is worth starting without
a love, and many of his songs have been regarded as a sort of
report of his fortunes and misfortunes with women.
abuse for a number of years, Ray finally enrolled in the rehabiltation
program at St. Francis hospital near Los Angeles in 1965. His
decision to go cold turkey is an example of his committment to
himself, and after overcoming his physical and psychological addiction
in his own way, he left the hospital. It was at St. Francis that
Ray learned how to play chess and continued to play cards in Braille.
recent bout with pain was a serious maddening of inner-ear problems.
"I was hearing sound within sounds," he says. For a
man that relies so heavily on his hearing, this proved to be quite
a scare. Although his problems have since been resolved, Ray felt
motivated enough to become involved with groups like Ear International,
a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization for the hearing disabled.
His personal donations and fund raising have provided money for
research in developing electronic implants, among other devices.
his dedication to the hearing impaired, Ray urged Congress to
increase funding for research into hearing loss in 1987. His visit
to Washington, D.C. included speaking before the subcommittees
for Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, saying: "Most
people take their hearing for granted. I can't. My eyes are my
handicap, but my ears are my opportunity. My ears show me what
my eyes can't. My ears tell me 99 percent of what I need to know
about my world."
to working with Ear International, Ray Charles has shown a long
and active concern and involvement with sickle cell disease programs.
In 1975, the National Association for Sickle Cell Disease (NASCD)
presented their first "Man of Distinction" Award to
Ray, and he continues as the L.A. chapter's Honorary Chairman
for this multi-talented entertainer? Well, as Ray himself articulates,
"music is nothing separate from me. It is me. I can't retire
from music any more than I can retire from my liver...I believe
the Lord will retire me when He's ready. And then I'll have plenty
of time for a long vacation."